Celebrating the madcap genius of Howard Kaylan
Howard Kaylan, along with his long-time collaborator Mark Volman, created some of the sweetest, most bittersweet, and most laugh-out-loud funny satirical rock of the 20th century.
Most of the first two descriptions would fit The Turtles; the latter would fit Phlorescent Leech and Eddie aka Flo & Eddie, the duo’s alterna-Turtles who first worked with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention and then went out under their own name.
Now, The Turtles certainly hold a place in my heart. “Happy Together” was the song my wife and I chose for our wedding processional, as played by a three-piece female band called the Cello Chix. I grew up with the Turtles on Top 40 radio. I loved that one of my favorite rockers, Ray Davies of The Kinks, produced their 1969 album, Turtle Soup. They did a song called “Outside Chance” by another of my favorite songwriters, a pre-fame Warren Zevon back in 1966.
Did Turtles fans know that the acerbic and National Lampoon-like Flo & Eddie sprang from the same source?
I believe I did when I started spinning Flo & Eddie’s Illegal, Immoral and Fattening LP on college radio in 1975. But I had to double-check; I mean the vocal harmonies were just as sweet, but, hey, The Turtles gave you “Happy Together,” “You Don’t Have to Walk in the Rain,” and “Elenore” and Flo & Eddie started this album with the title song, an upbeat number about “poking holes in your rock and roll balloons,” which was pretty much the theme of the album: “All you know are lies/And we’re pop star spies!”
There was “Kama Sutra Time,” “The Pop Star Massage Unit” and “The Kung Fu Killer” and “Livin’ in the Jungle.” There was also a tune, “Eddie Are You Kidding?” which they originally did when they were part of his Mothers of Invention.
It’s one of the funniest, most politically incorrect rock records ever made.
Let’s focus on “Kama Sutra Time,” which made fun of everyone from George Harrison to Jerry Garcia to Marc Bolan to Elton John to Joni Mitchell. (“Sometimes, it’s a fine line between Joni and Yoko,” one of them notes within the song.) Flo & Eddie wove a lot of melodies in and out of this profane laugher, where they championed, among other things, water sports (of the peeing variety) and necrophilia (I guess that doesn’t have to be qualified).
VIDEO: Flo and Eddie “Kama Sutra Time”
A few years ago, I was working on a piece about humor in pop music and Kaylan, who turns 75 June 22, was one of my go-to guys. Kaylan told me Harrison sued (successfully) not because of the parodic aspect, but because they lifted “My Sweet Lord” directly. (Irony alert! See: Harrison and the Chiffons, “My Sweet Lord”/” He’s So Fine.”)
“George wanted publishing money for this,” said Kaylan. “Joni laughed. We became closer to Joni after that came out and she came to a lot of our shows. You’ve got to have some love in you if you’re going to skewer or lampoon these people It’s not worth taking a cheap shot at ? and the Mysterians. You can take shots at The Beatles, you can take shots at American Idol, you can take shots at things that are so public and general that the world has accepted them as part of their collective DNA. That’s when everybody laughs at the same time, when we share a common funny bone together.”
In “Kung Fu Killer,” well, the guys took on a No. 1 hit of the year, Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting.”
“It sucked then and it sucks now,” Kaylan said. “And as long as we can agree on that one little thing that’s the thumb tack to hang the rest of the act on.”
I love it when humor is done well and groan when it isn’t. I think it’s a hard thing to pull off; how do you do this without making a joke of the song?
“If you don’t have a sense of humor about life in general, you’ll have a miserable time.” Kaylan said. “Humor in rock or anything else works best when it holds up a magnifying glass to society and makes people look at themselves through somebody else’s eyes. There’s been a dumbing down in humor since Mr. Zappa’s death. That gap has not been filled. There’s no one out there musically or comedically that has the balls or the talent to do it.”
AUDIO: Frank Zappa “Billy The Mountain”
There are myriad exceptions of course. Four of mine include Too Much Joy, The Coolies, Southern Culture on the Skids and Albertos Y Lost Trios Paranoias. But that’s another story.
The Turtles, so to speak, are on the road this summer, the annual Happy Together Tour resumes (post?) pandemic. They’ve been doing this a long time, 13 years – The Turtles plus guests – and they are currently crossing the land with The Association, The Cowsills, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap and The Vogues.
The Happy Together tour brightens the summer for pop music fans of a certain age and mindset. Specifically, those who have fond memories of the sounds they loved in the mid- ‘60s through the early ‘70s and don’t mind diving deep into nostalgia for a night. Compact sets: All hits, all the time, 61 Top 40 chartbusters from start to finish. Kaylan, however, once again, due to health issues is not part of it; Ron Dante, the voice of the Archies – who’s been on this tour playing that role in the past – is againtaking Kaylan’s spot.
I talked to Volman four years ago. He didn’t volunteer details about Kaylan’s situation and Kaylan, when reached via email, said there was “nothing specific” he cared to share. (It’s been reported on the website www.centerlinenews.com that Kaylan was recovering from major back surgery and his doctors won’t allow him to tour.)
As it turned out, The Turtles had a Plan B. “You have to be prepared for something like this,” said Volman. “Obviously, Howard’s a key member of this, but we adapted. We have a certain amount of economic consideration that goes into putting this show up and Howard understood that. We have 26 people on staff. It’s hard to shut down a tour when so many people revolve their career around these summer jobs.”
Hence, Dante. The show must go on.
There’s no update on The Turtles website. Obviously, we all wish Kaylan well.
VIDEO: The Turtles perform “Happy Together” on The Ed Sullivan Show